From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]


The Life of the Chinese Gold Farmer
By JULIAN DIBBELL  /  June 17, 2007

It was an hour before midnight, three hours into the night shift with
nine more to go. At his workstation in a small, fluorescent-lighted
office space in Nanjing, China, Li Qiwen sat shirtless and chain-
smoking, gazing purposefully at the online computer game in front of
him. The screen showed a lightly wooded mountain terrain, studded with
castle ruins and grazing deer, in which warrior monks milled about.
Li, or rather his staff-wielding wizard character, had been slaying
the enemy monks since 8 p.m., mouse-clicking on one corpse after
another, each time gathering a few dozen virtual coins – and maybe a
magic weapon or two – into an increasingly laden backpack.

Twelve hours a night, seven nights a week, with only two or three
nights off per month, this is what Li does – for a living. On this
summer night in 2006, the game on his screen was, as always, World of
Warcraft, an online fantasy title in which players, in the guise of
self-created avatars – night-elf wizards, warrior orcs and other
Tolkienesque characters – battle their way through the mythical realm
of Azeroth, earning points for every monster slain and rising, over
many months, from the game’s lowest level of death-dealing power (1)
to the highest (70). More than eight million people around the world
play World of Warcraft – approximately one in every thousand on the
planet – and whenever Li is logged on, thousands of other players are,
too. They share the game’s vast, virtual world with him, converging in
its towns to trade their loot or turning up from time to time in Li’s
own wooded corner of it, looking for enemies to kill and coins to
gather. Every World of Warcraft player needs those coins, and mostly
for one reason: to pay for the virtual gear to fight the monsters to
earn the points to reach the next level. And there are only two ways
players can get as much of this virtual money as the game requires:
they can spend hours collecting it or they can pay someone real money
to do it for them.

At the end of each shift, Li reports the night’s haul to his
supervisor, and at the end of the week, he, like his nine co-workers,
will be paid in full. For every 100 gold coins he gathers, Li makes 10
yuan, or about $1.25, earning an effective wage of 30 cents an hour,
more or less. The boss, in turn, receives $3 or more when he sells
those same coins to an online retailer, who will sell them to the
final customer (an American or European player) for as much as $20.
The small commercial space Li and his colleagues work in – two rooms,
one for the workers and another for the supervisor – along with a
rudimentary workers’ dorm, a half-hour’s bus ride away, are the entire
physical plant of this modest $80,000-a-year business. It is estimated
that there are thousands of businesses like it all over China, neither
owned nor operated by the game companies from which they make their
money. Collectively they employ an estimated 100,000 workers, who
produce the bulk of all the goods in what has become a $1.8 billion
worldwide trade in virtual items. The polite name for these operations
is youxi gongzuoshi, or gaming workshops, but to gamers throughout the
world, they are better known as gold farms. While the Internet has
produced some strange new job descriptions over the years, it is hard
to think of any more surreal than that of the Chinese gold farmer.

The market for massively multiplayer online role-playing games, known
as M.M.O.’s, is a fast-growing one, with no fewer than 80 current
titles and many more under development, all targeted at a player
population that totals around 30 million worldwide. World of Warcraft,
produced in Irvine, Calif., by Blizzard Entertainment, is one of the
most profitable computer games in history, earning close to $1 billion
a year in monthly subscriptions and other revenue. In a typical
M.M.O., as in a classic predigital role-playing game like Dungeons &
Dragons, each player leads his fantasy character on a life of combat
and adventure that may last for months or even years of play. As has
also been true since D. & D., however, the romance of this imaginary
life stands in sharp contrast to the plodding, mathematical precision
with which it proceeds.

Players of M.M.O.’s are notoriously obsessive gamers, not infrequently
dedicating more time to the make-believe careers of their characters
than to their own real jobs. Indeed, it is no mere conceit to say that
M.M.O.’s are just as much economies as games. In every one of them,
there is some form of money, the getting and spending of which
invariably demands a lot of attention: in World of Warcraft, it is the
generic gold coin; in Korea’s popular Lineage II, it is the “adena”;
in the Japanese hit Final Fantasy XI, it is called “gil.” And in all
of these games, it takes a lot of this virtual local currency to buy
the gear and other battle aids a player needs to even contemplate a
run at the monsters worth fighting. To get it, players have a range of
virtual income-generating activities to choose from: they can collect
loot from dead monsters, of course, but they can also make weapons,
potions and similarly useful items to sell to other players or even
gather the herbs and hides and other resources that are the crafters’
raw materials. Repetitive and time-intensive by design, these pursuits
and others like them are known collectively as “the grind.”

For players lacking time or patience for the grind, there has always
been another means of acquiring virtual loot: real money. From the
earliest days of M.M.O.’s, players have been willing to trade their
hard-earned legal tender – dollars, euros, yen, pounds sterling – for
the fruits of other players’ grinding. And despite strict rules
against the practice in the most popular online games, there have
always been players willing to sell. The phenomenon of selling virtual
goods for real money is called real-money trading, or R.M.T., and it
first flourished in the late 1990s on eBay. M.M.O. players looking to
sell their virtual armor, weapons, gold and other items would post
them for auction and then, when all the bids were in and payment was
made, arrange with the highest bidder to meet inside the game world
and transfer the goods from the seller’s account to the buyer’s.

Until very recently, in fact, eBay was a major clearinghouse for
commodities from every virtual economy known to gaming – from
venerable sword-and-sorcery stalwarts EverQuest and Ultima Online to
up-and-comers like the Machiavellian space adventure Eve Online and
the free-form social sandbox Second Life. That all came to an official
end this January, when eBay announced a ban on R.M.T. sales, citing,
among other concerns, the customer-service issues involved in
facilitating transactions that are prohibited by the gaming companies.
But by then the market had long since outgrown the tag-sale economics
of online auctions. For years now, the vast majority of virtual goods
has been brought to retail not by players selling the product of their
own gaming but by high-volume online specialty sites like the virtual-
money superstores IGE, BroGame and Massive Online Gaming Sales –
multimillion-dollar businesses offering one-stop, one-click shopping
and instant delivery of in-game cash. These are the Wal-Marts and
Targets of this decidedly gray market, and the same economic logic
that leads conventional megaretailers to China in search of cheap toys
and textiles takes their virtual counterparts to China’s gold farms.

Indeed, on the surface, there is little to distinguish gold farming
from toy production or textile manufacture or any of the other
industries that have mushroomed across China to feed the desires of
the Western consumer. The wages, the margins, the worker housing, the
long shifts and endless workweeks – all of these are standard
practice. Like many workers in China today, most gold farmers are
migrants. Li, for example, came to Nanjing, in the country’s industry-
heavy coastal region, from less prosperous parts. At 30, he is old for
the job and feels it. He says he hopes to marry and start a family, he
told me, but doesn’t see it happening on his current wages, which are
not much better than what he made at his last job, fixing cars. The
free company housing means his expenses aren’t high – food,
cigarettes, bus fare, connection fees at the local wang ba (or
Internet cafe) where he goes to relax – but even so, Li said, it is
difficult to set aside savings. “You can do it,” he said, “but you
have to economize a lot.”

This is the quick-sketch picture of the job, however, and it misses
much. To sit at Li’s side for an hour or two, amid the dreary,
functional surroundings of his workplace, as he navigates the
Technicolor fantasy world he earns his living in, is to understand
that gold farming isn’t just another outsourced job.

When the night shift ends and the sun comes up, Li and his co-workers
know it only by the slivers of daylight that slip in at the edges of
the plastic sheeting taped to the windows against the glare. As Li
clocks out, another worker takes his seat, takes control of his avatar
and carries on with the same grim routines amid the warrior monks of
Azeroth. On most days Li’s replacement is 22-year-old Wang Huachen,
who has been at this gold farm for a year, ever since he completed his
university course in law. Soon, Wang told me, he will take the test
for his certificate to practice, but he seems in no particular hurry

“I will miss this job,” he said. “It can be boring, but I still have
sometimes a playful attitude. So I think I will miss this feeling.”

Two workstations away, Wang’s co-worker Zhou Xiaoguang, who is 24,
also spends the day shift massacring monks. To watch his face as he
plays, you wouldn’t guess there was anything like fun involved in this
job, and perhaps “fun” isn’t exactly the word. As anyone who has spent
much time among video-gamers knows, the look on a person’s face as he
or she plays can be a curiously serious one, reflective of the
absorbing rigors of many contemporary games. It is hard, in any case,
for Zhou to say where the line between work and play falls in a gold
farmer’s daily routines. “I am here the full 12 hours every day,” he
told me, offhandedly killing a passing deer with a single crushing
blow. “It’s not all work. But there’s not a big difference between
play and work.”

I turned to Wang Huachen, who remained intent on manipulating an
arsenal of combat spells, and asked again how it was possible that in
these circumstances anybody could, as he put it, “have sometimes a
playful attitude”?

He didn’t even look up from his screen. “I cannot explain,” he said.
“It just feels that way.”

In 2001, Edward Castronova, an economist at the University of Indiana
and at the time an EverQuest player, published a paper in which he
documented the rate at which his fellow players accumulated virtual
goods, then used the current R.M.T. prices of those goods to calculate
the total annual wealth generated by all that in-game activity. The
figure he arrived at, $135 million, was roughly 25 times the size of
EverQuest’s R.M.T. market at the time. Updated and more broadly
applied, Castronova’s results suggest an aggregate gross domestic
product for today’s virtual economies of anywhere from $7 billion to
$12 billion, a range that puts the economic output of the online gamer
population in the company of Bolivia’s, Albania’s and Nepal’s.

Not quite the big time, no, but the implications are bigger, perhaps,
than the numbers themselves. Castronova’s estimate of EverQuest’s
G.D.P. showed that online games – even when there is no exchange of
actual money – can produce actual wealth. And in doing so Castronova
also showed that something curious has happened to the classic
economic distinction between play and production: in certain corners
of the world, it has melted away. Play has begun to do real work.

This development has not been universally welcomed. In the eyes of
many gamers, in fact, real-money trading is essentially a scam – a
form of cheating only slightly more refined than, say, offering 20
actual dollars for another player’s Boardwalk and Park Place in
Monopoly. Some players, and quite a few game designers, see the
problem in more systemic terms. Real-money trading harms the game,
they argue, because the overheated productivity of gold farms and
other profit-seeking operations makes it harder for beginning players
to get ahead. Either way, the sense of a certain economic injustice at
work breeds resentment. In theory this resentment would be aimed at
every link in the R.M.T. chain, from the buyers to the retailers to
the gold-farm bosses. And, indeed, late last month American WoW
players filed a class-action suit against the dominant virtual-gold
retailer, IGE, the first of its kind.

But as a matter of everyday practice, it is the farmers who catch it
in the face. Consider, for example, a typical interlude in the workday
of the 21-year-old gold farmer Min Qinghai. Min spends most of his
time within the confines of a former manufacturing space 200 miles
south of Nanjing in the midsize city of Jinhua. He works two floors
below the plywood bunks of the workers’ dorm where he sleeps. In two
years of 84-hour farming weeks, he has rarely stepped outside for
longer than it takes to eat a meal. But he has died more times than he
can count. And last September on a warm afternoon, halfway between his
lunch and dinner breaks, it was happening again.

The World of Warcraft monsters he faces down – ferocious, gray-furred
warriors of the Timbermaw clan of bearmen – are no match for his high-
level characters, but they do fight back and sometimes they get the
better of him. And so it appeared they had just done. Distracted from
his post for a moment, Min returned to find his hunter-class character
at the brink of death, the scene before him a flurry of computer-
animated weapon blows. It wasn’t until the fight had run its course
and the hunter lay dead that Min could make out exactly what had
happened. The game’s chat window displayed a textual record of the
blows landed and the cost to Min in damage points. The record was
clear: the monsters hadn’t acted alone. In the middle of the fight
another player happened by, sneaked up on Min and brought him down.

Min leaned back and stretched, then set about the tedious business of
resurrecting his character, a drawn-out sequence of operations that
can put a player out of action for as long as 10 minutes. In farms
with daily production quotas, too much time spent dead instead of
farming gold can put the worker’s job at risk. And in shops where
daily wages are tied to daily harvests, every minute lost to death is
money taken from the farmer’s pocket. But there are times when death
is more than just an economic setback for a gold farmer, and this was
one of them. As Min returned to his corpse – checking to make sure his
attacker wasn’t waiting around to fall on him again the moment he
resurrected – what hurt more than the death itself was how it
happened, or more precisely, what made it happen: another player.

It isn’t that WoW players don’t frequently kill other players for fun
and kill points. They do. But there is usually more to it when the
kill in question is a gold farmer. In part because gold farmers’
hunting patterns are so repetitive, they are easy to spot, making them
ready targets for pent-up anti-R.M.T. hostility, expressed in
everything from private sarcastic messages to gratuitous ambushes that
can stop a farmer’s harvesting in its tracks. In homemade World of
Warcraft video clips that circulate on YouTube or GameTrailers, with
titles like “Chinese Gold Farmers Must Die” and “Chinese Farmer
Extermination,” players document their farmer-killing expeditions
through that same Timbermaw-ridden patch of WoW in which Min does his
farming – a place so popular with farmers that Western players
sometimes call it China Town. Nick Yee, an M.M.O. scholar based at
Stanford, has noted the unsettling parallels (the recurrence of words
like “vermin,” “rats” and “extermination”) between contemporary anti-
gold-farmer rhetoric and 19th-century U.S. literature on immigrant
Chinese laundry workers.

Min’s English is not good enough to grasp in all its richness the
hatred aimed his way. But he gets the idea. He feels a little
embarrassed around regular players and sometimes says he thinks about
how he might explain himself to those who believe he has no place
among them, if only he could speak their language. “I have this idea
in mind that regular players should understand that people do
different things in the game,” he said. “They are playing. And we are
making a living.”

It is a distinction that game companies understand all too well. Like
the majority of M.M.O. companies, Blizzard has chosen to align itself
with the customers who abhor R.M.T. rather than the ones who use it. A
year ago, Blizzard announced it had identified and banned more than
50,000 World of Warcraft accounts belonging to farmers. It was the
opening salvo in a continuing eradication campaign that has
effectively swept millions in farmed gold from the market, sending the
exchange rate rocketing from a low of 6 cents per gold coin last
spring to a high of 35 cents in January.

Of course, nobody expected the farmers’ equally rule-breaking
customers to be punished too. Among players, the R.M.T. debate may
revolve around questions of fairness, but among game companies, the
only question seems to be what is good for business. Cracking down on
R.M.T. buyers makes poorer marketing sense than cracking down on
sellers, in much the same way that cracking down on illegal drug
suppliers is a better political move than cracking down on users.
(Only a few companies have found a way to make R.M.T. part of their
business model. Sony Online Entertainment, which publishes EverQuest,
has started earning respectable revenues from an experimental in-game
auction system that charges players a small transaction fee for real-
money trades.) As Mark Jacobs, vice president at Electronic Arts and
creator of the classic M.M.O. Dark Age of Camelot, put it: “Are you
going to get more sympathy from busting 50,000 Chinese farmers or from
busting 10,000 Americans that are buying? It’s not a racial thing at
all. If you bust the buyers, you’re busting the guys who are paying to
play your game, who you want to keep as customers and who will then go
on the forums and say really nasty things about your company and your

The cost to farmers of being expelled from WoW can be steep. At the
very least, it means a temporary drop in productivity, because the
character has to be to built up all over again, as well as the loss of
all the loot accumulated in that character’s account. Given the
stakes, some Chinese gold farms have found that the best way to get
around their farmers’ pursuers is to make it hard to distinguish
professionals from players in the first place. One business that
specializes in doing just that is located a few blocks from the gold
farm where Min Qinghai works. The shop floor is about the same size,
with about the same number of computers in the same neat rows, but you
can tell just walking through the place that it is a more serious
operation. For one thing, there are a lot more workers: typically 25
on the day shift, 25 on the night shift, each crew punching in and out
at a time clock just inside the entrance. Nobody works without a shirt
here; quite a few, in fact, wear a standard-issue white polo shirt
with the company initials on it. There is also a crimson version of
the shirt, reserved for management and worn at all times by the shift
supervisor, who, when he isn’t prowling the floor, sits at his desk
before a broad white wall emblazoned with foot-high Chinese characters
in red that spell: unity, collaboration, integrity, efficiency.

The name of the business is Donghua Networks, and its specialty is
what gamers call “power leveling.” Like regular gold farming, power
leveling offers customers an end run around the World of Warcraft
grind – except that instead of providing money and other items, the
power leveler simply does the work for you. Hand over your account
name, password and about $300, and get on with your real life for a
while: in a marathon of round-the-clock monster-bashing, a team of
power levelers will raise your character from the lowest level to the
highest, accomplishing in four weeks or less what at a normal rate of
play would take at least four months.

For Donghua’s owners – 26-year-old Fei Jianfeng and 36-year-old Bao
Donghua, both former gold-farm wage workers themselves – moving the
business out of farming and into leveling was an easy call. Among
other advantages, they say, power leveling means fewer banned
accounts. Because the only game accounts used are the customers’ own,
there is much less risk of losing access to the virtual work site. For
their workers, however, the advantages are mixed. Though there is a
greater variety of quests and quarries to pursue, the pay isn’t any
better, and some workers chafe at the constraints of playing a
stranger’s character, preferring the relative autonomy of farming

As one Donghua power leveler said of his old gold-farming job, “I had
more room to play for myself.”

It may seem strange that a wage-working loot farmer would still care
about the freedom to play. But it is not half as strange as the scene
that unfolded one evening at 9 o’clock in the Internet cafe on the
ground floor of the building where Donghua has its offices. Scattered
around the stifling, dim wang ba, 10 power levelers just off the day
shift were merrily gaming away. Not all of them were playing World of
Warcraft. A big, silent lug named Mao sat mesmerized by a very pink-
and-purple Japanese schoolgirls’ game, in which doe-eyed characters
square off in dancing contests with other online players. But the rest
had chosen, to a man, to log into their personal World of Warcraft
accounts and spend these precious free hours right back where they had
spent every other hour of the day: in Azeroth.

Such scenes are not at all unusual. At the end of almost any working
day or night in a Chinese gaming workshop, workers can be found
playing the same game they have been playing for the last 12 hours,
and to some extent gold-farm operators depend on it. The game is too
complex for the bosses to learn it all themselves; they need their
workers to be players – to find out all the tricks and shortcuts, to
train themselves and to train one another. “When I was a worker,” Fan
Yangwen, who is now 21 and in Donghua’s main office providing
technical support, told me, “I loved to play because when I was
playing, I was learning.” But learning to play or learning to work? I
asked. Fan shrugged. “Both.”

Fan himself is a striking case of how off-hours play can serve as a
kind of unpaid R. and D. lab for the farming industry. He is that
rarest of World of Warcraft obsessives, a Chinese gold farmer who has
actually bought farmed gold. (“Sure, I bought 10,000 once,” he said,
“I don’t have time to farm all that!”) When Fan shows up at the wang
ba after work, it is a minor event; the other Donghua workers pull
their chairs over to watch him play – his top-level warlock character
is an unbelievable powerhouse that no amount of money, real or
virtual, can buy.

What makes Fan’s dominance so impressive to his peers is that he
achieved it in regions of the game that are all but inaccessible to
the working gold farmer or power leveler. Therein lies what is known
as the end game, the phase of epic challenges that begins only when
the player has accumulated the maximum experience points and can level
up no more. The rewards for meeting these challenges are phenomenal:
rare weapons and armor pieces loaded with massive power boosts and
showy graphics. And the greatest cannot be traded or given away; they
can only be acquired by venturing into the game’s most difficult
dungeons. That requires becoming part of a tightly coordinated “raid”
group of as many as 40 other players (any fewer than that, and the
entire group will almost certainly “wipe” – or die en masse without
killing any monsters of note). Each player has a shot at the best
items when they drop, and players must negotiate among themselves for
the top prizes. These end-game hurdles have some subtle but
significant effects. For one thing, they force the growth of “guilds”
– teams of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of players who join together to
hit high-end dungeons on a regular basis. For another, they shut
farmers out from an entire class of virtual goods – the most
marketable in the game if only they could be traded.

For a long time the Donghua bosses, Fei and Bao (known even to
employees as Little Bai and Brother Bao), could do no more than nurse
their envy of the raiding guilds’ access to the end game. But Fan’s
prowess pointed to another way of looking at it: raiding guilds
weren’t the competition, they realized; they were the solution.
Donghua would put together a team of 40 employees. They would train
the team in all the hardest dungeons. And then, for a few hundred
dollars, the team would escort any customer into the dungeon of his or
her choice. And when the customer’s longed-for item dropped, the team
would stand aside and let the customer take it, no questions asked.
Thus would the supposedly unmarketable end-game treasures find their
way into the R.M.T. market. And thus would gold farming, of a sort,
find its way at last into the end game.

When Brother Bao and Little Bai put their team together in April of
last year, Min Qinghai, a veteran Donghua employee at the time, was
among the first to make the roster.

“Before I joined the raiding team, I’d never worked together with so
many people,” Min told me. They were 40 young men in three adjoining
office spaces, and it was chaotic at first. Two or three supervisors
moved among them, calling out orders like generals. A dungeon raid is
always a puzzle: figuring out which tactics to use to kill each boss
is the main challenge; doing so while coordinating 40 players can be
dizzying. But members of the team raided just as diligently as they
had power-leveled: 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, making their way
through the complexities of a different dungeon every day.

There was a lot of shouting involved, at least in the beginning.
Besides the orders called out by the supervisors, there were loud
attempts at coordination among the team members themselves. “But then
we developed a sense of cooperation, and the shouting grew rarer,” Min
said. “By the end, nothing needed to be said.” They moved through the
dungeons in silent harmony, 40 intricately interdependent players,
each the master of his part. For every fight in every dungeon, the
hunters knew without asking exactly when to shoot and at what range;
the priests had their healing spells down to a rhythm; wizards knew
just how much damage to put in their combat spells.

And Min’s role? The translator struggled for a moment to find the word
in English, and when I hazarded a guess, Min turned directly to me and
repeated it, the only English I ever heard him speak. “Tank,” he said,
breaking into a rare, slow smile, and why wouldn’t he? The tank – the
heavily armored warrior character who holds the attention of the most
powerful enemy in the fight, taking all its blows – is the linchpin of
any raid. If the tank dies, everybody else will soon die too, as a

“Working together, playing together, it felt nice,” Min said.
“Very . . . shuang.” The word means “open, clear, exhilarating.” “You
would go in, knowing that you were fighting the bosses that all the
guilds in the world dream of fighting; there was a sense of

The end arrived without warning. One day word came down from the
bosses that the 40-man raids were suspended indefinitely for lack of
customers. In the meantime, team members would go back to gold
farming, gathering loot in five-man dungeons that once might have
thrilled Min but now presented no challenge whatsoever. “We no longer
went to fight the big boss monsters,” Min said. “We were ordered to
stay in one place doing the same thing again and again. Everyday I was
looking at the same thing. I could not stand it.”

Min quit and took the farming job he works at still. The new job, with
its rote Timbermaw whacking, could hardly be less exciting. But it is
more relaxed than Donghua was, less wearying – “Working 12 hours there
was like working 24 here” – and he couldn’t have stayed on in any
case, surrounded by reminders of the broken promise of tanking for
what might have been the greatest guild on Earth.

In the meantime, Min is doing his best to forget that his work has
anything at all to do with play or that he ever let himself believe
otherwise. But even with a job as monotonous as this one, it isn’t
easy. On his usual hunt one day, he accidentally backed into combat
with a higher-level monster. Losing life fast, he grabbed his mouse
and started to flee. He hunched over his keyboard, leaning into his
flight, flushed now by the chase. His boss, 26-year-old Liu Haibin, an
inveterate gamer himself, wandered by and began to cheer him on:
“Yeah, yeah, yeah . . . go!”

Finally the monster quit the chase, and Min got away with no
consequence more untoward than having to explain himself. “It’s
instinctual – you can’t help it,” he said. “You want to play.”

{Julian Dibbell is the author, most recently, of “Play Money: Or How I
Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot.” This is his
first article for the magazine.}

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